In times like these, America embraces a hero -- even if he's only 12 inches tall.
Makers of GI Joe, the action figure whose career spans a venerable 37 years, say sales are booming, thanks in part to a resurgent interest in the military and old-fashioned heroism in the wake of Sept. 11.
It's an impressive comeback for a toy that had become obsolete, at least in its original foot-tall form, for more than a decade and only returned full-time to toy store shelves seven years ago.
"The military has become interesting to kids again," says Derryl DePriest, who directs GI Joe marketing for Hasbro Inc. "If anything, recent events reinforce those core values that GI Joe symbolizes -- honor, duty and commitment."
Hasbro officials aren't willing to share exact sales figures, but will admit that sales of the toy have done "very well" since the terrorist attacks.
Toy industry observers say the doll's surprising comeback started long before Sept. 11, however, and may say as much about GI Joe's ability to adapt to his times as it does about current public tastes.
"The kids want heroes, and right now [the country has] clear heroes: They wear olive drab and firemen's hats and flak jackets," says John Michlig, author of The Complete Story of America's Favorite Man of Action (Chronicle Books, 1998).
GI Joe came dressed strictly in olive drab in 1964, when he was first unveiled by Hasbro. Michlig describes the toy as the company's answer to Barbie, rival toymaker Mattel's hugely popular doll, except GI Joe was aimed exclusively at boys.
With his articulated limbs and elaborate wardrobe and accessories, he was more or less a copy of Ken if Barbie's boyfriend had enlisted in the Army. Fearful that he might be perceived as a girl's doll, Hasbro even put a scar on GI Joe's right cheek and company salesmen were told to describe the product only as an "action figure."
"Hey, I wouldn't have had my son playing with a doll or dressing a doll," recalls Sam Speers, 75, of Sarasota, Florida who helped create GI Joe as Hasbro's director of product development in the 1960s. "But once we put him in the military, then it was all right. It changed my mind entirely."
After modest sales initially, GI Joe's career took off, thanks to some effective television advertising and word-of-mouth among grade schoolers. The toy's career threatened to unravel just a few years later, when concerns about the Vietnam War sharply lowered the public's opinion of the military.
Rhode Island-based Hasbro responded by making GI Joe an adventurer rather than a military man. His wardrobe switched from camouflage and helmets to space suits and explorer jackets.
But things worsened by the late '70s, when the post-Watergate generation seemed more attuned to anti-heroes than a straight arrow like GI Joe. It didn't help that OPEC's oil embargo raised the price of plastic. Hasbro officials decided to discontinue the 12-inch version entirely in 1978.
"Kids lost interest in GI Joe," says Vincent Santelmo, author of The Complete Encyclopedia to GI Joe (Krause Publications, 2001). "It was a time of long hair, tattoos and chicks. GI Joe didn't fit in."
But GI Joe wasn't ready to turn in his plastic dog tags yet. In 1982, Hasbro started making a 3 3 / 4 -inch model -- the same size as the highly successful Star Wars action figures. His whole identity was altered: GI Joe became a code name for a team of elite soldiers, men and women with specific personalities and character names.
Sales took off once again -- boosted by its tie-ins to a comic book and an animated TV series that was little more than a 30-minute advertisement for the line of GI Joe figures. But even that success eventually petered out and the miniature GI Joes were discontinued in the mid-'90s.
'Kids today need heroes'
Hasbro's decision to revive the full-size GI Joe in 1994 was aimed largely at the growing legions of GI Joe collectors, mostly middle-aged men with fond memories of the earlier versions. They hadn't expected youngsters to buy into the toy, but it turned out to be a hit.
"Kids today need heroes like they see on TV," says Charlie Bray, a Catonsville GI Joe collector with more than 400 Joes and an 11-year-old son. "Now, they can sort of fight back themselves. And it's great to see the big guy back."
Today, the GI Joe line is once again extensive -- if still not quite like the original. Where the original GI Joe cost $4, today's version retails for $10 to $30, with some limited-edition models selling for as much as $150.
Hasbro officials haven't lost their touch for sensing the public's mood. The week of Sept. 11, the company was in the process of shipping out a new model -- a search and rescue firefighter -- that is now selling out in most stores.
"It was a coincidence. We haven't changed our strategy [of marketing] in light of recent events," says DePriest, who plans to revive the smaller GI Joes next year.
Still, society has changed in 37 years and even GI Joe collectors suspect many parents will be reluctant to buy a toy with a close association to guns and violence. Santelmo, who has written five hobbyist books about GI Joe and is a father of two, has misgivings about his own children playing with armed soldiers.
"Real-life and the horrors of war are not a pleasant thing," says Santelmo, 40, who lives in New York. "GI stands alone for what he represents as an action figure. He's also just a toy."